What’s the Point? Investigating Bolting Ethics and Controversy in Australia

This article first appeared in Vertical Life, Issue #5, May 2013

All photographs ©Nick LeBaut 2013

Halfway between Sydney and Canberra, Point Perpendicular is known for searing lines that follow natural weaknesses, and spectacular top-outs some 100m above the roiling Pacific Ocean. The combination of heart-thudding exposure, relatively easy access and bulletproof sandstone (where it isn’t sandy choss) has ensured popularity with climbers who seek a little more adventure than your average sport crag provides.

In between the lines that take sinker gear there are many unclimbed faces unprotectable by traditional pro, which have long drawn the eye of aspiring climbers. Some have been established as mixed climbs, using traditional gear where possible and spaced bolts elsewhere. Others have been quietly bolted as sports routes.

Will bolting Big Bad WolfWill Watkins bolting Big Bad Wolf

Development slowed over the past few years, until recently, when a group of local climbers began a renaissance, bolting some 20+ new sport routes. For the most part these were well received. More lines means less traffic on the classics, and new routes spice things up for those who know the crag well. However, not everyone thought things were so peachy. Catching wind of this surge in bolting, some climbers found themselves fuming in silence.

The establishment of so many sport lines at a crag known for its bold trad ethic didn’t sit right. Still, no rules were being broken. Most of the new lines were classic sport fodder: very few gear placements – generally not enough to warrant a mixed route – and quality climbing. Without real grounds for disapproval above a general sense that things were awry, objectors kept their views to themselves. Until a few months ago, when one of the bolters made a costly blunder. Matt Tranter is a reserved, serious man who has been living in the Illawarra region for five years. Originally from the UK and with over 60 trad first ascents to his name, since arriving in Australia Matt has put up many sport routes.

Matt was climbing trad in the UK before sport climbing existed and today he doesn’t discriminate, though he draws the line at abseiling for fun – ‘that’s just for weirdos’. Thoughtful and articulate, Matt relates his version of what went down when he bolted a new route on Windjammer Wall. Accompanied by Simon Vaughn, a local of 25 years, he examined the photo topos in the relatively new guide book.

“I looked very closely at the routes on either side. I [abseiled] up and down a couple of times, looked where the line in the guide book went and thought right, I can put a route up here.”

As he was bolting, two climbers commented he was drilling rather close to Sail the Nullabor (24), a beautiful, run-out test piece. Matt took another look at the climb. One of his bolts did in fact lie on the wandering line taken by Sail the Nullabor. ‘At that point then I was like, oh shit, that’s not very good. I think I will have to end up removing this.’


Neil Sail The Nullarbour 2 Neil Monteith on Sail the Nullabor

Initially, Matt said, there was no problem. ‘Everyone was quite genial about it and I . . . said look, if this is a mistake of course I’m going to remove it. I don’t want to upset anybody.’ Matt agreed to return to the Point and remove the offending bolts. Then something went weird. ‘I talked to Damian [Jovanovic] and he was quite amicable. But as we left he’d already [abseiled] down and taken two [bolts] out with a crowbar and a hammer that he had in his car.’

Matt had just had his first encounter with one of the most vocal objectors to sport climbing at Point Perpendicular. Damian is dead against most of the recent bolting at the Point or ‘consumerising climbing,’ as he calls it. With no official enforcement of bolting ethics, some climbers take on this role themselves.

Damian takes his self-appointed role seriously and according to Matt, aside from the crowbar incident ‘he removed them really well. He has the best intentions. He didn’t want to scar the route.’ Over the next week Matt and Damian removed the remaining bolts and that should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t.

Although the specific issue had been resolved, the conflict was only beginning. The Illawarra and Highlands Climbing Facebook group erupted with hearsay, conjecture and criticism. Moderate voices tried to keep the peace, but for Matt these developments were abhorrent. In his single post to the forum he explained his actions and slammed his opponents. ‘Being called a sports climb cunt. . . and many other personal attacks based on limited or knowledge of my background . . . is not helpful to either myself or to a climbing community, which should not be split into extreme camps and stoop to mud slinging.’

Bolting conflicts are nothing new to Matt, but it is clear that this one has troubled him deeply. ‘[My bolting] was done with forethought and due consideration. I don’t want to upset anybody. Why would you go out of your way to upset anybody at all?’

It wasn’t the chopping of the bolts that bothered Matt, but the online thrashing. Local climber Rick Phillips agrees that the online culture of faceless sledging can create problems. ‘Social media 101, they love it and they cause trouble.’ Oddly enough, much of the vitriol was coming from Damian, who had been so amicable in person.

Damian Jovanovic is a straight shooter with a penchant for stirring. Infamous for his wildly abrasive, inflammatory contributions to Chockstone as his alter ego One Day Hero, he is also an obliging interview subject and respected by everyone I spoke to. He translates his ethics into actions, marking him out as more than just an angry voice. And he loves the Point.

‘I love the feel of the place, it’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what that is. Change any of the location, exposure, rock, style, movement, commitment, generally low climber density, smell, whales, eagles, Currarong fish and chip shop, and it wouldn’t be the same.’

The proliferation of sport routes on Windjammer Wall had him riled. It was only a matter of time before someone slipped up and bore the brunt of his anger. I have become increasingly frustrated with the . . . expansion of sport climbing without consideration for other styles,’ Damian explains.

Although in some cases he’s amenable to compromise, in many ways he feels like it’s too late and drastic measures are called for. ‘I thought I’d reached a compromise when Thompson’s became a sport crag . . . when Shipley became a sport crag . . . the line keeps moving . . . It won’t ever end unless a firm line is drawn and defended.’ For Damian, the emergence of a sport climbing mono-culture is a real possibility, which threatens to undermine the aspects of climbing that he values most: tradition, respect and commitment.

“My first response when I went down there [to the Point] 15 years ago was ‘shit, I better get training to be able repeat these amazing hard trad lines’. . . it seems that a lot of the bolting crowd haven’t even attempted to repeat those old test pieces. Showing up [and] not even trying to do the existing classics, but sport bolting new routes of your own just seems so disrespectful to me, so arrogant!”

He also feels that an appreciation for the art of climbing and the patience of skill acquisition is lost on new generations of climbers, resulting in a depressingly homogenous community. Responding to a sport climber on an online forum recently, he wrote, ‘I suspect that once you put the time in to learn how to climb cracks and place gear, once you’ve done a bunch of the mega trad routes on [Windjammer], your feelings on this matter will be somewhat changed.’

Prominent members of the climbing community including Neil Monteith, founder of Safer Cliffs Australia agree with this sentiment. Damian may be confrontational, but he makes a compelling argument for the protection of diversity in climbing development.

Rick Phillips is a Point local whose grandfather, as a fisherman back in the day, was one of the first to rope up and scale the cliffs. Rick has made extraordinary contributions to the local community, putting down over $10,000 in bolting materials and countless hours developing and re-bolting local crags. Together with Will Watkins, Rick put up about six of the new sport routes on Windjammer Wall.  When his route She Sells Sea Shells, a partial retro-bolt of Beside the Seaside was anonymously chopped only a week after the Sail the Nullabor incident it sparked a fiery discussion on Chockstone. Rick was notably absent, and I wanted to hear his side of the story.

We spoke on the phone and agreed to meet at the Point over Easter. He turns up with his son in tow. ‘Designated driver,’ he quips lightly, indicating his crutches. Just one week after hip replacement surgery he’s back at the crag. He grins and surveys the scene. A brief shower has dispersed the busy Easter crowd and a muted light now bathes the cliff top. A couple of climbers sit on the cliff edge overlooking the sea, contemplating their next move.

This has been Rick’s home crag for as long as he’s been climbing, and it is clear that he loves the place. He asks me what I’ve been climbing, have I checked out the new sport routes on Windjammer? What did I think of the tricky crux moves on the new 22? His enthusiasm is contagious and it’s a while before we move on to the subject of chopping.

Rick Philips bolting hurray for hippiesRick Phillips bolting Hurrah for Hippies

I ask him what happened on She Sells Sea Shells and his tone changes. It is a route that is close to his heart, bolted for a loved one diagnosed with metastatic cancer.

Described in Robert Dun’s guide book as ‘loose and poorly protected’, most agree that it wasn’t a popular route. ‘I searched around for obvious belay protection or signs of previous climbers . . . you could climb this rambling slab a thousand different ways.’

When Rick rapped in he found no protection at the belay or for the first 10m of the climb. The route was a harrowing prospect. Rick bolted the climb and shared it with his friend. Apparently she still talks about the experience today. It quickly became a popular exit pitch from Windjammer Wall, receiving many ascents.

The controversy began some weeks later when two climbers rapped into the route and found the bolts chopped. ‘One of my friends told his friends to climb it, and all there was left was the belay bolts.’ Rick said, ‘So they started climbing and went wow, it’s pretty run out. I didn’t even know the bolts were gone.’ With the only moderate bolted exit from Windjammer Wall chopped, the climbers were in a potentially dangerous position. Was this Damian’s work? Rick is certain it wasn’t.

“Me and Damo are good mates. We have beers together. But when my climb got chopped by an anonymous, I told Damo all bets are off. If someone wants the bolts off and wants to correspond with me that’s fine, but if someone randomly just takes my whole . . .” he trails off. “That’s just not cool.”

Rick welcomes discussion regarding ethics at the Point. He is interested in cultivating a harmonious climbing community. So when a member of the community refuses to engage it rankles. I asked Damian what he thinks of anonymous chopping. ‘Some people feel very strongly about their favourite climbing areas and are also a bit shy. Their unwillingness to engage in a confrontational debate doesn’t invalidate their right to an opinion.’ Will Watkins disagrees, ‘The anonymous stripping of She Sells . . . shows a lack of respect for the climbing community. Have the courage to stand in front of the climber that put the bolts in and voice your concerns before acting.’

Matt Tranter feels the same. ‘It’s not only arrogant, it’s stupid and dangerous. Someone had moved the goalposts without telling anybody. It’s just not right.’ Is it okay to anonymously chop bolts with potentially dangerous outcomes? Or are choppers duty bound to inform someone, the bolter perhaps? Is it reasonable to expect to be informed by choppers if bolters don’t receive approval before they commence?

For Beside the Seaside first ascensionist Ian Brown, the matter is straightforward. ‘I’m against any retro- bolting, especially if its unilateral, and support neat removal. But any chopping should also be declared.’ According to Neil Monteith, community consensus is key. ‘Or democracy,’ he corrects himself. ‘You’ll never get 100 per cent of people agreeing on anything, so if you get most . . . ‘ He trails off.  It’s a daunting prospect. Anyone who has read Chockstone in recent times has seen the cacophony of us-vs-them arguments springing from all corners of the country. Reasonable consensus seems a long way off.

Things can start to look bleak when you delve into this debate. Fortunately there is a lighter side. According to Damian, ‘a bolt war is only as much fun as you make it,’ and in between the serious rhetoric and acts of grand passion there has been plenty of time for fun.

Several new sport routes at the Point have been dedicated to Damian and his anti-bolting accomplices. New routes such as East Coast Choppers, Damo’s Lamo and Settle Down Damo are available for your sport climbing pleasure today.

Disparate cells of choppers have formed a secret club known as Dangerouser Cliffs Australia, otherwise known as Da Choppers Association or DCA for short. Their t-shirts are available in a range of colours for $30 (apparently black is the most popular).

When it comes to change, many climbers don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Bolts, trad, it’s all climbing. Change happens and you have to move with the times. For others, today’s changes threaten their most treasured climbing experiences, and they are vocal in their defence.

In early April a new bolting controversy was brought to the attention of the wider community via Chockstone: the bolting of a crack at a new, predominantly sport crag Elphinstone, Blue Mountains. As this goes to press loud voices are weighing in, and clandestine bolting and chopping missions abound. The debate rages on.

Words ©Nina Gallo 2013

Photographs ©Nick LeBaut 2013

Vertical Life is available for download on your Kindle, iProduct or as a PDF.

To download this and many other fine articles from the Australian climbing community, visit http://www.verticallifemag.com.au/magazines/ 38


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